Topeka Zoo: Protocols weren't followed before tiger attack

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A veteran zookeeper didn't follow procedures for handling potentially dangerous animals in April when she was attacked at the Topeka Zoo by a tiger , zoo officials said Thursday.

A report detailing the zoo's internal investigation says "multiple" zoo protocols that dictate what should happen before a person enters a space previously occupied by a tiger had prevented attacks at the zoo for decades.

"On the morning of April 20, a staff person omitted the crucial step of locking the tiger inside prior to the staff person entering the outdoor habitat," according to the report.

Although he didn't use her name, Zoo Director Brendan Wiley said in an email Thursday that the zookeeper who was injured, Kristyn Hayden-Ortega, was responsible for closing the gate.

Hayden-Ortega, suffered puncture wounds and cuts to her head, neck and back when a 7-year-old Sumatran tiger named Sanjiv pounced on her. She was hospitalized after the attack. A city spokeswoman said Thursday she could not provide an update on the woman's condition.

Shortly after the attack, the zoo implemented a policy requiring an employee to check locks, doors and the location of animals before a second employee enters a space open to a potentially dangerous animal. That policy was already in place for elephants and apes and now applies to all carnivores.

The zoo also will install safety entrances at all large carnivore outdoor habitat entrances to ensure that there is no open access to the area "because this incident points to the fact that human error is something we need to guard against," the report said.

Witnesses told zoo officials that the tiger had been roaming between indoor and outdoor sections of its enclosure before Hayden-Ortega arrived to clean it. Hayden-Ortega was only a few steps inside the enclosure when she saw the tiger coming and turned to get to an access gate but the tiger caught her from behind.

A zoo docent and husband and wife who were visiting witnessed the attack through a glass window. While the docent alerted other staff, the woman called 911 as her husband relayed information to her.

Three zookeepers secured the gates and tried to lure the tiger away from the Hayden-Ortega with meat. The tiger eventually went inside and was secured, giving emergency responders access to Hayden-Ortega, according to the report.

The report says the swift response of the docent, witnesses and three zookeepers "most likely saved the life of a co-worker."

Zoo officials didn't consider euthanizing Sanjiv, who they said reacted normally to someone being in his habitat.

Hayden-Ortega began working at the zoo in 2001 and worked regularly with the tigers. She is the president of the Topeka chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers. Sanjiv arrived at the Topeka Zoo in August 2017 from a zoo in Akron, Ohio, and has fathered four cubs.

The zoo is considering other changes, such as installing two differently keyed locks on all potentially dangerous doors, with no staff person having keys to both locks.

Federal and state agencies are reviewing the attack to ensure animal welfare and employee safety. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums will also investigate with a focus on preventing such incidents from occurring at all its accredited institutions.

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